After Four Years, the U.S. Military is Still Learning How to Manage the Media in Iraq

A look inside the working conditions of an embedded journalist in Iraq.

Plenty of people have commented on how the United States — particularly the American military — is losing the propaganda war with radical Islamic militants. Some blame the mainstream media, saying that reporters focus on the “bad” news coming out of Iraq, while terrorists focus on their successes.

In reality, the American military isn’t doing itself any favors in its bumbling press efforts, but in order to simultaneously increase coverage, and ensure that the press it does get is positive, the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNFI) office has set up its own YouTube channel to broadcast video footage shot by troops in the field, and the Army has been using Flickr and to try and get its message out there on the Web.

This is all for the good, as the American public is being given another window on the daily lives of its troops in the field.

But where are all the reporters? Before you blame the “MSM” for botching the coverage of the war, take a look at a couple posts that the blogger Michael Yon has written this week — they’re eye-opening.

A veteran of several embeds to Iraq, and a former soldier himself, Yon writes that he has been having trouble finding places to work and post his stories to his Web site. What’s more, a general has e-mailed, threatening to kick him out of Iraq, for reasons Yon doesn’t disclose. This leads to a dissection of military/press relations:

I’ve spent more than a year embedded in Iraq, and numerous times public affairs people have made snide remarks that journalists should be happy they get to eat “their chow” for free. Of course, they don’t mention that “their chow” belongs to American taxpayers, the same taxpayers they hurt when they squelch journalism from the war. Whether they do it directly, intentionally indirectly, or just by plain bungling the simplest stuff, like making sure writers have a surface to write on, whatever the case, I haven’t met anyone yet who knows how to write or hold a camera who comes to Iraq for free food…

Remember that back in October 2006 Yon wrote a controversial piece in the Weekly Standard about how the American military denied him an embed slot, for reasons he couldn’t fully discern. He slammed the military for, in effect, censoring reporters by not giving them the access to the troops they need (by making the embed process so difficult), and complained bitterly about the bad state of military-press relations in general.

Now, having been granted another embed in Iraq, Yon seems to have found that not a lot has changed from his trips in previous years — especially concerning the attention paid by the Army to where and how to house reporters while they’re on base.

I found this out first hand while I was housed in the unheated, collapsing “media tent” in Camp Fallujah, Iraq for a couple nights.

Some dirt and grime are fine — indeed, in a war zone they’re a fact of life, and any reporter who has an aversion to a little mud should stay home. But not having a place to transmit stories back to the home office, especially five years into the war, is a huge failure on the part of MNFI. In today’s post, Yon spells this out, writing that, “I’ve been back in Iraq now for about three months, and sadly have to report that, despite signs of progress in many key areas of the battle space, the conditions on the media/military front have not improved since early 2005.The hardest part of my job should be surviving the missions, and after that, deciding which one of a dozen possible dispatches should be written. But lately I’ve been fighting just to find a place to live and work…It’s been a month since I’ve had reliable Internet access. A month. It took 25 hours spread over two days to transmit about a dozen photos for this dispatch. Two work days.”

Obviously, conditions like this aren’t necessarily keeping reporters away — we continue to see excellent, if infrequent, embedded reporting. But they aren’t helping matters, either. Insurgent groups in Iraq have excellent media operations, and can communicate their message quickly through the Internet. The American military is just starting to learn how to do this, but it isn’t doing itself any favors by making it unnecessarily difficult for reporters to get their stories out.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.